Commonwealth Journal

Local News

February 10, 2011

Fountain Square to be renovated under agreement

City and County reach truce

Somerset — Maintaining a firm resolve in the face of what appears to be a shaky truce with city government, Pulaski Fiscal Court on Tuesday approved a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to beautify Fountain Square.

The MOA, when signed by Pulaski County Judge-executive Barty Bullock and given final approval by the Transportation Cabinet, will provide $800,000 in federal-aid highway money to pay 80 percent of the cost of renovating the square. Pulaski County will provide 20 percent—about $200,000 —with in-kind services.

Actually, the county will do the work and be reimbursed with grant money that comes from the Federal Highway Administration through the Transportation Cabinet. The last major refurbishing of the square was in 1963 when John Sherman Cooper and his wife, Lorraine, updated the square “for the people of Pulaski County.” A statue of late Senator Cooper, favorite son of Pulaski County, stands facing the courthouse at the entrance to the square.

Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler is worried about how the Fountain Square project will affect his dream to revitalize the downtown area. Also, now that sprawling Pulaski Court of Justice squats where Market Street used to be, Girdler wonders how traffic would get through town if the Fountain Square area were blocked by construction.

Girdler envisions the heart of the downtown area as a pedestrian-friendly spot with outdoor cafes, and condos to provide spaces for people who would like to live downtown. However, Girdler contends if the county spends $1 million and preserves the square it will nullify his plan to create the type of downtown he would like to see.

Bullock and members of fiscal court don’t seem worried. The county holds all the cards. It owns the square and has local control of the grant money for the beautification project. The city doesn’t have a vote.

Recent meetings among city and county governmental officials and members of the Kentucky Department of Highways resulted in what appears an effort to pacify the city. Bullock promised that the county will present two or three alternative plans before the beautification project begins. Girdler, who in frustration pulled city engineer Alex Godsey away from Fountain Square committee meetings, said he told Godsey to continue working with the planning group.

The judge-executive said architects to be employed by the county will prepare more than one alternative for the square project. Also, Godsey, at the direction of Girdler, has drawn a plan that includes two mini parks on the south side of the square. The drawing shows Mt. Vernon Street going straight through where Fountain Square is now. It is uncertain if this plan is still in the mix.

Bullock, however, appears unbending in his determination to retain the historical significance of the square. Tiffany Bourne, the judge’s administrative assistant and member of a Fountain Square planning group, said the Kentucky Historical Society will not sign off on the grant if the square’s historical value is lost.

“We’re not against anything in particular unless it destroys historical significance of Fountain Square,” Bullock declared, following fiscal court’s approval of the agreement. The judge-executive’s position is bolstered by a poll that shows members of the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce are overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the square in its present form.

“Our goal is not to create a major traffic hindrance,” said Bullock, in reference to Girdler’s concern about traffic flow.  The judge-executive suggested the marked triangle (where newspapers are sold) on the east side of the square would provide additional space for staging equipment.

Girdler said the Transportation Cabinet has indicated it will conduct a study of traffic flows around Fountain Square. Bullock said he doesn’t think these studies will delay the beautification project. He quoted an official at the local highway department as saying the University of Kentucky could do the studies “ ... and I believe he said it would take about 10 days,” Bullock noted.

Fountain Square, a centerpiece since horse and buggy days, became a traffic nightmare when Lake Cumberland was impounded. Those where days before bypasses, and the “Ohio Navy” was channeled along Mt. Vernon Street and around Fountain Square to get to the lake.

The late A.A. “Sandy” Offutt, mayor of Somerset during the late 1950s threatened to take a bulldozer and straighten Mt. Vernon Street through the center of the square. The county sued and the courts ruled the square was owned by the county. Offutt and his bulldozer had to back off, but it didn’t quell a simmering desire by the city to get rid of the square.

The judge-executive said he and Bourne met with Transportation Cabinet in Frankfort and he said cabinet officials indicated they will help the county retain the historical significance of the square.

“We’re not set on any particular thing. We want to make the square beautiful  ... so people will be proud,” Bullock said. Bourne expressed hope that actual construction of the project could begin in late spring or early summer.

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